Could the Golden Knights Use Nikita Gusev Right Now?

By now, most of the hockey world knows Nikita Gusev, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) stand-out who has officially signed a contract with the Vegas Golden Knights. Gusev’s rights were acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. In return, Golden Knights’ general manager George McPhee assured the Lightning that he would select Jason Garrison from their unprotected list.

This deal worked for both sides, as the Lightning were able to guarantee their future. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights picked up an intriguing import, with the ability to bury Garrison in the AHL for most of their inaugural season, among a plethora of other trades. Now that Gusev’s SKA (St. Petersburg) club has been eliminated from their playoffs, the crafty winger decided to make the jump to the NHL.

Gusev Datsyuk
(Nikita Gusev against Pavel Datsyuk. Photo: Alexander Golovko)

Although his team is no longer playing and the Golden Knights own his NHL rights, Gusev needed to get his KHL club to terminate his KHL deal, allowing him to leave for the NHL. On April 13th, Gusev got his wish and he headed to Vegas. The crafty winger is so enticing to Golden Knights fans because of his creativity and soft hands with the puck. He is a guy who makes something out of nothing on the ice. Take this play into consideration, to gauge just how magical Gusev can be, as he turns an opposing defenseman into a turnstile.

The Golden Knights are entrenched in a very physical series with perhaps their biggest rivals, the San Jose Sharks. Adding a new player to the lineup could help the team, but the timing here is interesting.

Most KHL imports need an adjustment period to the North-American style of play, yet the Golden Knights decided to bring him over in the middle of the playoffs. His play in the KHL is nothing to scoff at and he currently sits at 10th all-time in points scored. His talent is unquestioned, but just how well it will translate is the true variable here. Thus far, it seems there is no rush to insert Gusev into the lineup, as he is skating as an extra on the fourth line in his first practice sessions.

Why Sign Gusev Now?

Although they hold a 2-1 series lead, the series didn’t start very smoothly for the Golden Knights. In Game 1, the Sharks took it to their opponents, to the tune of a 5-2 victory at home. They dominated the pace of play and got out to a big enough lead to essentially coast through the third period, defending their lead.

Joe Pavelski, Marc-Andre Fleury, Nick Holden
San Jose Sharks’ Joe Pavelski reacts after scoring a goal against Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

The decision to bring Gusev over may have been made during that game. It looked as if the Golden Knights lacked the firepower to compete with the Sharks. Two games later, it has become apparent that they are just fine, with the stellar play of their second line of Paul Stastny centering Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. In Game 3, the trio scored a total of 12 points and had a hand in each of the six goals scored by the team. Gusev can still serve as an insurance add, a guy who could spark the offense if it goes stagnant.

What Can Gusev Add?

Gusev’s main skill is his creativity in the offensive end. He is a masterful playmaker and has the ability to light the lamp with above-average hands. With their most offensively gifted option at third-line left wing, Brandon Pirri, serving as a healthy scratch, Gusev could slot into that spot alongside Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch.

“Coach makes the decisions.”

George McPhee on the possibility of Gusev playing, during his introductory press conference.

Both Pirri and Gusev could help that line find more offense. Gusev is more of a pass-first option, which may suit Eakin and Tuch better than Pirri, who is a pure shooter. His track record suggests that he can make things happen offensively, regardless of the league, with 400 points in 458 games played. Knights on Ice took a pretty deep dive into the potential Gusev brings to the Golden Knights.

Why Not Play Gusev?

Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant would not be wrong to have concerns about adding a player from the KHL. Gusev is not the club’s first foray into the KHL and the first attempt went about as badly as possible. Prior to the Expansion Draft, McPhee signed KHL-standout Vadim Shipachyov, with an eye on him operating as the team’s top-line center. He got off to a slow start in camp, it continued through the preseason, and he was designated for assignment to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League (AHL).

Vadim Shipachyov Golden Knights
Vegas Golden Knights center Vadim Shipachyov. (Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports)

A few days later, he was recalled and appeared in three games, scoring one goal. Soon McPhee elected to send him back to the Wolves for more adjustment to the North American style of play. Shipachyov was not a fan of the move and elected to voluntarily retire in order to head back to Russia and rejoin his former KHL team. Although Gusev seems to be a more complete player than Shipachyov, there’s never a guarantee that a KHL transplant will immediately pan out.

Moving Forward

Pending a turnaround for the Sharks, it looks like the Golden Knights will be able to get past them for the second straight season and advance to the Western Conference Semifinals. Until there is a glaring need for Gusev to come in, I’d expect his usage to be limited to practice, in order to assimilate into the locker room, and the team’s playing style.

They are one of the more physical, aggressive forechecking teams in the NHL and that is not a style that is common in the KHL. While it is possible that Gusev impresses Gallant in practice and gets the nod for a game, it would be hard to imagine it coming during this specific series, with so much emotion and extra-curricular activity taking place in between and after the whistles.

For now, the team and their fans will be able to see Gusev showcase his skillset and work his way into the swing of things. Don’t sleep on Gusev, but at the same time, don’t be surprised if he doesn’t make it into a game until October.